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Photo by James Allen Walker

Hope in the heartland

Effective Compassion | Our Midwest region winner balances discipline and grace

Issue: "De-coding Morsi," July 28, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS-Peavey Park, in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, has a wading pool, basketball hoops, red-painted playground equipment, and soccer fields. The park doesn't live up to its potential, though, because it's a hub for drug deals, gang activity, and prostitution. Most children in the poor neighborhood of brick storefronts and aging blue, green, and gray homes don't live up to their potential, either: Only one out of five students at the nearby public school, Andersen, performs at grade level in math.

Hope Academy, a Christian private school, sits one block south of Peavey Park in a former hospital with an old coal smokestack out front. Every morning principal Russ Gregg greets arriving elementary students by name. "Is it raining out there?" he asks a girl, bending to give a hug. "You look so beautiful in this pink raincoat." Then he assures a third-grade boy that a good-behavior trip to McDonald's will come next week.

Hope Academy educated 325 K-12 students during the 2011/2012 school year. About three-fourths came from low-income families, and among them Hope has tripled the math proficiency rate. The 26 full- and part-time teachers at Hope don't just want to teach math, music, Latin, and rhetoric to poor kids, though. They want to shepherd them away from the false communities of gangs and drugs that beckon students emerging from neglect or turmoil at home.

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Creation of a new community begins as school opens with 150 elementary students-boys in red collared shirts and girls in blue-and-green plaid jumpers-crowded around an overhead projector. A teacher strums an acoustic guitar while the kids sing "Praise the Lord with a big bass drum!" They beat the air with pretend drumming. When worship time ends, students enter into lines and file quietly to classrooms.

To open hearts, teachers work to balance discipline and grace, and admit to students when they make mistakes. In the fourth-grade classroom, teacher Melissa Hoilien apologizes to a student for not clarifying the difference between "collage" and "college" on a previous spelling test. As Hoilien administers today's test, her students bend their noses to their desks and try to spell "odor," "cheddar," and "zipper." They also discuss memory verses like Romans 8:28: A student who had moved in with an aunt and uncle because of family problems recently told classmates that God is working her trials for her good and showing how much He loves her.

Meanwhile, second-grade students are rehearsing for an upcoming recital. Rajah West, 7, stands on a plastic stool with his chin down, looking nervous. "Go ahead, Rajah!" one classmate says, and 24-year-old teacher Scott Watkins starts a crunk-style soundtrack with police siren sound effects. Rajah raps along, singing lyrics he wrote himself: "Every day is basketball time. It's hang time, game time, we keep it goin' a friend of mine. ..."

Hope is trying to form a new community with kids who carry emotional baggage from outside. Hope students sometimes call each other names, scratch one another, ostracize others, and occasionally have outright fistfights. School policy requires a student serving a detention to fill out a "reflection sheet," writing down what he did wrong, whom he offended, and what he'll do differently next time. The goal is to finish with a prayer for heart change. This year Hope lost about a dozen students by May through expulsion or through families moving away.

Some students come to Hope after years of educational abuse. "At my old school, we didn't really learn anything, and teachers would kind of just give you a grade randomly," said Teia Mosley, a sophomore with hoop earrings. When she first came to Hope five years ago, her grades dropped from A's to C's and D's because the work was harder and grades were not inflated. Now she earns B's.

Hope limits class sizes to 20 students so teachers can help individuals who fall behind. It faces the challenge of finding teachers from the minority groups that now make up three-fourths of the school: More than four out of five teachers are white. School counselor and Bible teacher Darrell Gillespie could probably draw a higher salary elsewhere, but as an African-American pastor he feels called to Hope because of his opportunity to dispel black stereotypes in the minds of minority and white students alike.

Finances need constant attention. Because low-income families in the neighborhood pay as little as $60 per month for a student to attend Hope, sponsors need to cover the remainder of the annual $7,300 tuition. Hope's network of corporate and private sponsors covered 88 percent of the school's operating costs this year. Partly due to budget restrictions, Hope still lacks a formal sports program for elementary- and middle-school students. High-school students play boys' football, girls' soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball.

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